Dr. Baruj Benacerraf ’42, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in immunology, passed away at age 90 at his home in Boston on August 2, 2011.
Born in Caracas in 1920, Benacerraf grew up in France, until the advent of World War II forced his family to flee. After first returning to Venezuela, they immigrated to New York in 1940, and Benacerraf began studying at Columbia’s University Extension program, the precursor to the School of General Studies.
As a Columbia student Benacerraf cultivated his acumen for science, graduating with a major in biology and fulfilling the prerequisites for medical school, but also pursued a broad range of intellectual interests, studying modern drama and serving as president of the Cercle Lafayette, a French club. While directing a campus theatre production, he met his wife, Annette Dreyfus, a Barnard student and native Parisian.
“I came to the U.S. because I wanted a medical degree, and GS gave me the chance to earn a marvelous education,” he later recalled. “At Columbia, for the first time in my life I had the feeling there were no limits to my curiosity and imagination.”
Despite his impressive academic record, as a Sephardic Jewish immigrant Benacerraf faced considerable difficulty in pursuing a medical education—admission to medical school was “a formidable undertaking for someone with my ethnic and foreign background in the United States of 1942,” he wrote in his Nobel autobiography—until the father of a friend helped him to secure a place at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond (now part of Virginia Commonwealth University).
During medical school Benacerraf became a naturalized U.S. citizen and was drafted into the U.S. Army. After earning his medical degree and interning at Queens General Hospital, he served in Germany and France; upon his discharge he returned to New York but eventually settled in Paris, where he conducted research at Broussais Hospital and helped to manage his father's business affairs.
Ultimately, however, his lack of French citizenship hampered his career prospects, and he returned to the United States and a position in the pathology department of the New York University School of Medicine, where he began his research on immune response genes, for which he was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in 1980.
Through studies on guinea pigs Benacerraf demonstrated that immune responses are genetically determined, a finding that overturned current assumptions in immunology and held important implications for research into autoimmune diseases and organ transplantation.
After leaving NYU in 1966, Benacerraf served as director of the Laboratory of Immunology at the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health and then as chair of the department of pathology of Harvard Medical School. In 1980, just before receiving notification of his Nobel Prize, he moved to the Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where he served as president until 1992 and continued to conduct research until late in his life.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Benacerraf received the National Medal of Science, among numerous other awards, and honorary degrees from a number of institutions, including Columbia. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Science, and was one of four alumni honored at the School of General Studies’ 50th Anniversary Reception in 1997.
“Setting a New Standard: How Baruj Benacerraf Turned Modern Immunology on Its Head” from the 2010 Spring/Summer issue of Paths of Progress